Love in 1970: Close Your Eyes, Case Of You by mattsteinglass
March 22, 2009, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Music

I’ve been on an intermittent Joni Mitchell kick for a few months now, driven by the new YouTube availability of a lot of video of her performances, which make it clear how spectacular she was in a way I didn’t grasp from the recordings I heard while growing up. Along the way I started to find a couple of songs on which she was accompanied by James Taylor on guitar. And for whatever reason, one of the videos that turned up in the YouTube search box while looking for Joni Mitchell material was a video from a 1977 television interview of James Taylor and his then-wife Carly Simon performing Taylor’s “Close Your Eyes” in what appears to be their home studio.

There’s something off about this video. For most of it, Taylor looks down at his hands, or at nothing, while Simon gazes at him, smiling glowingly. The performance is gorgeous, but for the first half of it, you get the impression that Simon is ostentatiously playing one half of an adoring musical superstar couple, while Taylor is off somewhere else. Of course he’s focused on playing guitar, but if you’ve seen other video of him performing, you know he doesn’t need to watch his hands like this, or close his eyes the way he’s doing here. At times he almost looks like he can feel her eyes on him and is refusing to look up and meet her gaze, to do the “we love to sing together” schtick. And then he seems to wake up towards the end, look over at Simon and snap back into the appropriate enthusiasm.

My impression from other interviews is that Carly Simon is a highly demonstrative and self-dramatizing personality, while James Taylor is famously ironic and introverted. Also, Taylor was still using heroin at that point. And it’s easy to project backwards from the fact that the two divorced in 1983, and that Simon in a 2000 interview with Charlie Rose praised Taylor as a completely present father and then, just four years later, said in fact Taylor had erased her completely from his life and had almost no contact with their children. So maybe it’s projecting backwards. But it seemed to me that what we were seeing here was a couple experiencing tension because Simon wanted to project an idealized image of the two of them, and Taylor didn’t feel comfortable with that pretense. And the song throws the discrepancy in their faces: Taylor has to sing “I still love you”, and to make that “musical couple” performance work, he has to make it clear he’s saying this directly to Simon. But he doesn’t. Simon sings “I still love you” straight to Taylor, and Taylor sings “I still love you” to the middle distance, to something in his mind’s eye.

Who’s he thinking about?

This is Taylor playing “Close Your Eyes” in 1971, at the start of a performance that was part of a tour he did with Carole King, Russel Kunkel, Lee Sklar and a generally pretty swinging band. Here Taylor seems to oscillate between an intense aesthetic engagement and a resigned, matter-of-fact expression that looks like a manifestation of his chronic depression. This was the period when he was plying his troubled-WASP image into huge celebrity — he was on the cover of Time magazine in March 1971.

The 1971 show is striking for anyone who grew up with Taylor’s 1980s image as the incarnation of safe white liberal soft rock. In these clips his musical excellence and his detached, judgmental, brooding manner are gripping — see also this version of “Love Has Brought Me Around” or this hilarious blues schtick, “Come On Brother”, with Carole King rocking out as backup singer/dancer. Probably most striking is the irony. Taylor doing blues, or King doing R&B, is an intellectual exercise — a “check it out, I can do that too” performance, tongue in cheek. (It’s amazing to watch King doing a little R&B backup-singer dance, pretending to be one of the Shirelles, and then to realize that in fact she wrote the material for the Shirelles. So who was authentic, and who was doing the schtick?)

But all that irony only renders the stark sincerity of Taylor’s delivery on his personal songs that much sharper. And we have the matter of the chronically depressed opening number, “Close Your Eyes”, where Taylor looks like he’s going to finish the song, get up from his chair and swallow a bottle of Demerol. What’s up with the man?

This is a recording of Taylor playing the song in an October 28, 1970 concert at the Albert Hall in London shortly after he’d written it, with the woman he wrote it for, Joni Mitchell.

As recounted in the Sheila Weller’s excellent “Girls Like Us”, Taylor and Mitchell had been a couple since that summer. With Simon, Taylor sings the melody and lets her sing backup; here, he gives Mitchell the melody and he sings backup. The relationship didn’t last a year, but it was serious enough that Mitchell met Taylor’s parents, his chief-of-surgery father and ramrod-straight patrician mother, and was intimidated by them. She was older than him, and he was somewhat in awe of her; to compensate, he acted controlling and insulted her taste. She couldn’t decide: she says she wrote “Case of You” using actual incidents about Taylor, but that the person she really had in mind was Leonard Cohen. After the breakup, she went off to Canada, announced she was quitting music, and wrote five of the songs on “For the Roses” about him. And he went off and did the Jo Mama tour. What else did he write about her? “Love Has Brought Me Around”? (“Goodbye lonely blue, it shall all come true”? Who else would have rightly told Taylor that his lyrics were hackneyed — “I know you know what I’ve got to say is an old cliche anyway, so they say. Love has brought me around”?)

Who the hell knows what was actually going through James Taylor’s and Carly Simon’s heads in that first clip. But it suits my imagination to think that what you’re seeing there is Taylor’s wife trying to inhabit a role he created in his head for an earlier lover, and Taylor reacting with distance and avoidance. To quote the guy who Carly Simon opened for in the first show she ever played, the first cut is the deepest.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

He’s looking down because he was on heroin you twit!

Comment by Chantal

What are you, his dealer?

Comment by mattsteinglass

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